High Class Apartments

Things are looking up: From 1901 until 1929, New York City residents would become largely apartment dwellers. With a new law passed in 1901, residential buildings were allowed to grow up, to stretch up to the sky at a height that was more than twice the width of the street on which it stood.

That law, coupled with the gains made in modern architecture in the late 19th century, meant that a growing majority of New Yorkers would no longer live in houses, as they had historically. Nor would they dwell in poor and working class residences–tenements. Instead, as the building boom got underway, they would move (largely) uptown and up into the sky.

At $25, the price of this album indicated its exclusiveness

Advertisers and developers were quick to show potential residents just what they would get by adopting the fashionable living arrangement of the apartment house (which Europeans, they were quick to note, had long ago adopted, e.g, the “French flat”).

Developers appealed to a range of budgets, advertising buildings to the wealthiest (with rents as high as $4,500) to the more modestly well-to-do ($45).

But whatever the monthly cost, apartment dwelling was largely presented as “classy” and “convenient.” It was the height of modern city living.

The 1910 “Loose Leaf Album of Apartment Houses” featured exterior photographs of apartment buildings around the city with enticing names, such as “The Umbria” (W. 82st and West End Ave) and “The Chatsworth” (W. 72nd and Riverside Drive), accompanied by a list of their features and floor plans.

Selling points were those that are desired still today: large rooms, light, great views, convenience. At Harperly Hall (Central Park West and W. 64th St.) all the water, it was noted in its advertisement, was filtered.

View the full album at the NYPL


Many buildings were advertised as “fireproof,” (or at the very least containing fire extinguishers in the hallways). Telephones, valets, restaurants, ladies’ lounges–any number of amenities and services were available. And, if you so desired, as one apartment ad noted, residents were welcome to rent out extra servant rooms in the building’s basement for your service staff to live in.

“Convenience” was the key enticement to potential renters in these residences. Indeed, the lap of luxury could be found in the well engineered modern rooms that allowed occupants to be freed from those annoying “antiquated” chores– (manually filling the bathtub with water, writing a letter). Telephones were available for apartments; cooking smells magically vanished by exhaust fans that sucked the air clean; garbage miraculously disappeared down chutes to the basement; why, clothes were even dried by machines!

The lap of luxury

The campaign to sell space in these buildings opened the modern world to New Yorkers and ensured that the land grab in Manhattan and the building of the city upward was only just beginning.

Today, preservationists are looking to save some of these remaining old apartments. (Many were long ago torn down.) Meanwhile, the very act of looking at apartments has taken the leap from “loose leaf album” to prime time television, with shows such as Selling New York and Million Dollar Listing: New York.

Youtube has even provided a forum for people to take others on virtual tours of their apartments, while realtors can give tours at any time of the day or night. And films feature the NYC spectacular apartment tour--think Sex and the City--as the ultimate fantasy.

The tenement is a museum. The Plaza Hotel turned condo.

But it is clear that the New York apartment no longer needs to be explained. It merely needs to be shown off.

NYC Apartment Dwellers: Wealth and gilt never goes out of fashion. Tommy Hilfiger and family in their Plaza apartment.

~Jenny Thompson


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